Asheville’s new wave of culinary competitions aims to dismantle barriers

BLUE RIBBON: Chef Santiago Vargas, co-owner of Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Cuisine food truck, says winning top prizes in several Asheville Wing War competitions helped him gain exposure for his business. “It’s been a challenge introducing people to Peruvian food,” he says. “Many don’t know the flavors; they just know Mexican food. But they are coming around more and more.” Photo courtesy of Kelly Denson

In Asheville, the age of the “Iron Chef” competition has come and gone, replaced by a new generation of friendlier, more down-to-earth culinary showdowns. The WNC Chefs Challenge was discontinued in 2016, and its parent event, the Asheville Wine & Food Festival, was put on hold last year. In the wake of those developments, promoters Kelly Denson and Stu Helm have taken the reins, increasing the number of culinary competitions while striving for a more inclusive, blue-collar atmosphere.

It’s an interesting shift — and, for many, a welcome one, particularly considering that a lack of inclusivity seems to be what derailed the Chefs Challenge. When asked about the decision to switch the competition to live chef demonstrations, Kris Kraft, the event’s director at the time, said it had simply run its course. “Most of the chefs we were attracting were the younger, newer, up-and-coming chefs who were less well known, and people just didn’t seem to want to buy tickets for that. It was a lot of work without a lot of return, and it wasn’t really giving anybody the exposure they expected.”

But the showdown approach has proved viable for Denson, the founder and owner of All American Food Fights. She was inspired to host the first Asheville Wing War in 2011 after debating with friends which local eatery made the best chicken wings. “Two hundred people came out. I had no idea what I was doing at the time,” she reflects. “Eight years later, this is my career.”

What Denson loves about her culinary focus, she says, “is that it’s very accessible, blue-collar food. Everyone loves burgers, wings, mac ’n’ cheese and tacos. And they’re also foods that make a great canvas. You can make anything you want, whether it’s Thai curry wings or birthday cake-flavored ones. The sky is the limit.”

Sweet smell of success

All American Food Fights hosts four local events annually: the Wing War, a mac ’n’ cheese competition called Mac Attack, the Taco Takeover and the WNC Battle of the Burger. General admission ranges from $8-$12. Denson has also expanded her range, with competitions in Colorado and Virginia and plans to add events in Florida and Tennessee.

Those offerings, which draw about 1,000 attendees on average, also give chefs who might traditionally be overlooked a chance to gain significant recognition and exposure.

Raynard Walker, chef and owner of the Hendersonville-based DreadLife Kitchen, reports that after winning the 2018 Wing War People’s Choice Award, he saw increased name recognition and wing orders. In fact, Walker is now considering launching a second location in Asheville.

Another success story is chef Jamie Wade, who opened Sand Hill Kitchen in 2017 and achieved local foodie fame after winning the 2018 Battle of the Burger. “It helped establish us as a legitimate place,” she explains. “I have met quite a few people I wouldn’t have ordinarily. I’m grateful that people have given us a chance, even though we’re located in a gas station.”

Chef Santiago Vargas, co-owner of Out of the Blue Peruvian Fusion Cuisine, a food truck, says the exposure generated by top finishes in three consecutive Wing Wars has been really helpful in getting his name out. “It’s been a challenge introducing people to Peruvian food,” says Vargas, who moved from New York to Asheville four years ago. “Many don’t know the flavors; they just know Mexican food. But they are coming around more and more.”

Egalitarian eats

Helm’s casual, approachable and frequent competitions are a more recent addition to the scene. After conducting a Facebook contest for the best fried chicken in town that went viral, he realized there was a desire for more focus on such humble offerings as Philly cheesesteak, pie, pizza and hot dogs. So he gave it a try and has continued to produce at least one event per month since 2018.

“I want my food competitions to be fun, easy and not a big burden on organizers, participants and people who attend. They are lighthearted social gatherings that are meant to fit into a lunch break,” he notes.

The events are generally held at the Asheville Masonic Temple in the middle of the workday. Helm donates the proceeds to fund the restoration and preservation of the temple’s antique, hand-painted theater backdrops, which he describes as priceless and beautiful. There’s usually no admission charge; attendees simply buy however many slices, sliders or servings they’d like to try.

“It’s a new concept that people are starting to catch onto. One big reason I have it during the week is for the people in the food industry: I want these people to come and feel like they can afford the event and that they have the time to attend,” Helm says. “I want people who are part of the industry to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor.”

Helm’s egalitarian approach even extends to the judges’ table. The food scene, he points out, has traditionally favored white men; to combat that, Helm says, he makes a conscious effort to include judges with different backgrounds, ethnicities, occupations and genders. He also randomly selects one of his social media followers who’s expressed an interest in taking part, offering them a chance to participate. “A lot of people get really excited about the chance to be a judge, so I want to give them that opportunity,” Helm explains.

Putting out the welcome mat

Still, there’s a lot more work to be done if Asheville wants to make the food scene truly equitable, says Davaion Bristol, who works as a cook and leads food tours in town. Bristol (aka hip-hop artist Spaceman Jones) says he’s usually the only black person at food events; Asheville, he maintains, operates under “a thin veneer of progressive.”

At food competitions, he continues, “I see a few black chefs and cooks entering; not equal, but some. The crowd is overwhelmingly white. It’s a surprise when I see another black person. Sometimes, when it happens, it’s like seeing a kind face and an ally.”

And while Bristol appreciates organizers’ efforts to include him on judging panels and bring him into the local food community, he challenges folks in the industry to go a lot deeper, particularly in terms of outreach. “People don’t know they’re welcome until they’ve been invited,” he explains. “In order for food to get better, we need an exchange of culture. … Take a trip to your local community center. Bring a meal to your after-school program. Send friend requests and messages to people you don’t know but have seen in the scene. Do a pop-up event in the ’hood.”

Bilingual blogger Luis Carlos Serapio, who founded the website DescubreAsheville.com, says he’d like to see food competitions built around a dish such as tacos do more to recognize and reach out to the local Latino community. In a recent interview, he said he hopes to see a more diverse roster of participants at such events, including the area’s traditional taquerias, rather than focusing solely on the usual group of white entrepreneurs.

“We are so often used as a theme,” he continues. “If you have an event that takes something from our culture, then why not do something for our culture that lifts it up? That would have a lot of positive impact in our community and give another face to the idea of who Latino immigrants are. A lot of people think of us as disposable.”

Serapio also believes business owners and event organizers could do more to make multicultural clients feel welcome. “A lot of people aren’t realizing the market that passes them by when they only advertise in English,” he says. “I want to believe that Asheville is doing a lot of good things and is moving in the right direction, but we have to push harder. We’re making some of that change happen.”

Food for thought

Food often serves as the ultimate connector, enabling complete strangers to share a table and an experience. In that role, it can serve as the perfect entrée for stories, identities and cultures. But it’s also “super-hyperpolitical,” says Aisha Adams of Equity Over Everything.

Adams, who founded the initiative in May, attributes many of the current inequities in the food industry to hundreds of years of prejudice and oppression. “There are few black people who own restaurants in Asheville, and there’s not a lot of outreach happening to bring in minority chefs from outside the area,” she maintains. “There are people who are conscious and trying to do the right thing, but it’s so systemic. We don’t have all the answers. Equity isn’t about bending the rules.”

Both Denson and Helm say they’re working to address these complex issues.

Denson has hired two bilingual employees for her event team, and she’s working on learning Spanish herself and getting her marketing materials translated. In advance of this year’s Taco Takeover, she says, she and those staffers visited local taquerias, inviting owners — in their native language — to participate.

“We got a lot of noes,” says Denson. “But next year, I’m thinking, maybe by switching the event from Sunday to Saturday we’ll be able to attract more Mexican-owned taquerias to participate, on a day when they aren’t already committed to church or family time. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m going to keep seeking it out.”

Serapio adds, “I’m very grateful when people like Stu [Helm] support me because it gives me access. Other people could do the same or go beyond. … We’re all walking new ground right now. We need to walk without being afraid of making a mistake. The worst thing we can do is nothing.”

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